Whether it is for a research paper or for personal inquiry, Wikipedia is most often the first place that I visit in search of information.
This web-based, user-driven online encyclopedia was first launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. It now contains over 14 million articles and includes languages and users from all over the globe.
Since entering the environment of academia, I have heard professors and students alike speak out against Wikipedia and claim that it is not a reliable resource for research papers. While this may be true in some cases, I would like to argue that it is reliable on an overwhelming majority of occasions, and should be trusted in many scenarios.
The core claim against Wikipedia is that because it is run by its users, people can post anything they like to the page. It is also said that there are biases present and that it is too focused on popular culture.
I would like to make an analogy here with Adam Smith’s age old concept of the “invisible hand.” He describes this in relation to laissez-faire economics; supply and demand and the will of the people will control costs and provide the necessary goods for society on their own. An authoritative hand is not necessary and the economy can take care of itself, at least that’s how the argument goes. Wikipedia is the same thing.
Let’s say, for instance, that a user decides to visit a page and change the capital of the United States from Washington, DC to New York City. The likelihood that one of the millions of users will come across this page and fix the mistake is very high. The error will be changed in a matter of a very short period of time, with no higher authority necessary.
Also, some have claimed that a business may go onto their own page and delete the information that they don’t want available to the public. Even if this does happen, I don’t see it as making Wikipedia an unreliable source, there is just an absence of information. There will probably still be more information than on Britannica, but there may be a few sentences deleted here or there.
If nothing else, Wikipedia is the best place to start for research. When writing a paper over the summer on the philosophical concept of hermeneutics, I was unfamiliar with the topic and checked Wikipedia to get a short explanation of what it was about. It no doubt helped me and led me to other resources.
So are there going to be some errors here and there? Of course there will be. But from my experience, the overwhelming majority of information is correct. The pages with high traffic, which will also probably be the most cited by students, will have the least number of errors because of the “invisible hand of Wikipedia.”
If you have a professor who does not allow this user-driven web site as a source for a paper, at least start with it. At the bottom of each page there are sources cited of where information came from and those can be invaluable in the search for data. This citing of sources on each Wikipedia page is also another argument in favor of it being reliable, and if sources aren’t cited, Wikipedia let’s you know that so you can take the information you are reading with a grain of salt.
Wikipedia is overwhelmingly reliable, and I urge you to use it for all it is worth. Contribute to articles you have expertise on and correct errors where you see them. It can only help to make this innovative web site more effective.